123. Tucci

In my household, the word tucci means male genitalia. It’s not a cute word that one of our kids used as babies or anything like that. It’s actually named for the actor Stanley Tucci, who made a big impression on us when we saw him in 2003 in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, a Broadway play in which he appeared naked, as did his co-star, Edie Falco. There was something about the way Tucci swaggered across the stage, flaunting it, making sure every last audience member got a good look, that made a big impression, and hence the name.

Ancient tucci at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale

We made the trip to New York to see the play because I had been a fan of his work since seeing him for the first time in 1995, playing a chillingly creepy villain on Murder One, a TV legal drama. In the 25 years since, he’s been great in whatever he does, most memorably in Big Night, a brilliant, touching film about two immigrant brothers trying the make a go of a restaurant serving real Italian food on the Jersey Shore of the 1950s. And in real life, Tucci leans in to his Italian roots as well, publishing The Tucci Cookbook and The Tucci Table: Cooking with Family and Friends of family recipes. So it was with eager anticipation that I looked forward to Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy, a travel and food six-episode Sunday evening series that premiered on CNN on Feb. 14.

I must admit that I approached this show with some trepidation. With all due respect to Rick Steves and Anthony Bourdain, I tend to find portrayals of Italy, both journalistic and fictional, in American media to be condescending — ‘Oh, aren’t they cute the way they talk with their hands” — about a country that arguably made greater contributions to Western civilization, culture and cuisine than any other.

But Tucci nailed it, with appreciation that was both genuine and sentimental. The first episode was set in the province of Campania, which includes Naples and the Amalfi Coast. He vividly portrays the beautiful chaos of Naples, but also its heart, in the local custom of paying for an extra coffee or portion of food so that a poor person can have the “suspended” serving for free and in the creation of a cooperative cultural center and restaurant featuring Roma-Italian cuisine, to raise the prospects of Roma immigrants living in desolate public housing. He and his wife go back to a favorite Amalfi restaurant to learn, step-by-step, how to prepare spaghetti with zucchine, a dish they had tried for years to replicate at home and couldn’t get just right. (The secret, it turns out, is a glob of butter thrown in.)

Overlooking Amalfi

In a country where the cuisine is very particularly local, he shows chefs making Lemon Delight pastries from Amalfi lemons, stew made from wild rabbits on the island of Ischia, and pizza with San Marzano tomatoes grown in the lava from nearby Vesuvius, which erupts about once every century. We learn that the Neapolitan specialty of deep-fried pizza, which I’ve never tried and now need to make a special trip to Naples just for that, came from an attempt to purify the food with high-heat cooking to stem the spread of cholera during an earlier epidemic. In the current COVID pandemic, on the day that Italy finally came out of lockdown, pizzerias in Naples sold 60,000 pizzas, and even that did not meet the pent-up demand.

Going for a swim in the pristine (???) Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius in the background.

So no, Tucci didn’t display his tucci, either literally or figuratively. He took a back seat to the people and places he showed us, asking good questions — sometimes in slow Italian that even I could understand — and showing genuine appreciation and respect. For the next five weeks, I know what I’ll be doing Sunday evenings.

Crave-worthy Pizza Margherita

4 thoughts on “123. Tucci

  1. Hey Gigi, I saw part of an episode of Tucci’s show and really liked it. How good is his Italian — can you tell? Best, Pam


    1. Much better than mine, that’s for sure! But I can understand him perfectly, which probably means he’s slower and more basic than a real Italian would be.


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